Our Stories At Issue

Immersive Education

Story by Hannah Harris
Video by Ivan Lafollette

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Living in an unfamiliar place surrounded by different beliefs, language, and culture is the ultimate way to gain an immersive view of the world. The Service Learning Program (SLP) at the University of Oregon allows students to gain valuable experience working in his or her field of interest. Students are given the opportunity to leave the comfort of their home country and venture into the unknown. Melanie Edwards, Joe Nathanson, and Hayley Shapiro are students from the University of Oregon who returned from their trips with new perspectives about foreign communities, their own individual career paths, and personal well-being.

Cape Town, South Africa

The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa, calling the region home since the 16th century. A long-preserved Zulu coming of age experience teaches the boys how to carry out their life and become a Zulu man. Traditionally, Zulu men take young boys to be circumcised on an isolated hill. The boys are required to spend three months on the mountain with men who have also gone through the circumcision process during boyhood.

Although the circumcision ritual is hard to understand from a medical perspective because of the lack of sanitation and other health risks, Melanie Edwards realizes it’s a part of the Zulu culture that must be accepted. Without the range of ethnic groups, language, and landscape, South Africa would not be considered the diverse nation it is today.

Edwards, a 22-year-old human physiology major, studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa for seven weeks through Child Family Health International, a network of health students and professionals that strive to help underdeveloped areas. Edwards stayed with the Snyder family who lived near G.F. Jooste, the hospital at which she worked.

With a goal of gaining a wide range of medical experience while abroad, Edwards rotated between four areas of the hospital. Rotations included orthopedics—figuring out what was wrong with muscles and joints of the skeletal system and providing treatment—surgery, the emergency room, and internal medicine—medicine dealing with diseases. For five days a week, she participated in clinical rounds (demonstration patient cases) with the doctors.

“Orthopedics was my favorite because there was no real search for a diagnosis,” says Edwards. “The broken bone was right in front of me, and all I had to do was wrap it in a cast.”

During her surgery rotation, Edwards witnessed her first leg amputation. She was surprised to find herself undisturbed while watching the gory scene unfold, but the doctors’ meticulous explanation of the process eased her feelings of apprehension. Later on in her South African journey, Edwards spent time in an emergency room and practiced internal medicine that focused on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs, and diabetes.

Iron bars barricaded the windows of houses in the G.F. Jooste area. People were advised not to walk at dusk or even alone in daylight due to high levels of gang violence. Vibrantly colored shacks were dispersed throughout the hospital’s surrounding neighborhood, but just five minutes away there was a waterfront area where yachts, beautiful houses, and food markets closely resembled San Diego, CA.

Edwards was living in this relatively poor area. Running water was the only modern convenience available and selling drugs was one of the most profitable ways of life for locals. Tik, a local term for crystal meth, is the most common and sought after substance. As hostile gang members are its highest demographic of users, innocent bystanders often become victims of gang-related violence.

“It was obvious it wasn’t a safe area since those that came into the emergency room had stabbings and gunshot wounds,” says Edwards.

Aside from the drug trade, the high amount of violence could be linked to the racial segregation of communities. The four main communities are white, black, mixed-race, and Indian. Edwards explains that though she had not experienced racism personally, race remains a big issue for the people of South Africa.

Tarija and La Paz, Bolivia

The mother didn’t realize that malnutrition had been causing the baby’s abdomen to swell and bloat. This is common. In Bolivia, men and women aren’t provided with adequate public education to inform them about prevention of diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and chagas—a disease carried by the triatomine bug. With Bolivia being the poorest country in South America, a large population of indigenous people suffers from severe poverty.

“The doctors asked her why she wasn’t feeding her baby,” Joseph Nathanson says. “She said she thought the baby’s stomach was big enough and he was eating plenty.”

Nathanson, a 20-year-old human physiology major and chemistry minor, was working for 10 weeks at a pediatric hospital and obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Bolivia. He explains that two to three patients would be in the examination room at a time where full checkups took place. Nathanson was surprised at first, but became accustomed to providing the most basic nutrition facts to patients as medical education is scarce in the area. Throughout his time in Bolivia, Nathanson encountered multiple cases of malnourished children and pregnant women.

In the rainforests of the South Amazon, the Amerindian population relies on relationships with spirits to provide good health. Despite wellness being a spiritual belief, educating the population about sanitation and transmission of diseases is critical to obtaining a healthy lifestyle. The lack of education in the area frustrates Nathanson, but at the same time motivates him to go back to Bolivia to make public education a higher priority.

“Going to Bolivia made me change career paths,” says Nathanson. “I’ve gone from wanting to be a prestigious doctor in the U.S. to wanting to work at underserved clinics.”

Rabat, Morocco              

“Rabat was like two bubbles,” says 21-year-old Hayley Shapiro, a fourth year international studies major. “There was the colorful Medina which was filled with vendors, bartering, and women dressed in hijabs and kaftans, then there was the modern city where there were cars everywhere.”

Shapiro was staying with a host family in Morocco as she searched for an internship through IE3, a global internship program. After four months of searching, Shapiro was offered an internship with AMSAT (a French acronym for Moroccan Association for Support and Assistance for Persons with Down Syndrome) and moved to Kasbah, an area that was protected due to possible Spanish invasion.

AMSAT is a resource and education center that provides support to individuals with Down syndrome, mostly under the age of 16. Shapiro helped teach an improvisation dance class, focusing on making eye contact with an audience and filling negative space with other dancers. Only one of the students spoke French and the other eight spoke Dirija—which Shapiro admits she was not as familiar with. She would try to explain in half-Dirija and half-French, and if that did not work, she would show the children what to do.

Shapiro explains that going abroad for the sake of service rather than study or research changed the way the community saw her. People didn’t just see her as an American coming to the country to learn about a particular subject and enjoy the scenery, but as an American who wanted to learn about the country and help it. Shapiro is the SIT (School for International Training) student ambassador and encourages anyone interested in doing service abroad to contact her.

“Doing service abroad is mind-opening. You grow. You learn about yourself and how to get along with others,” says Shapiro. “You become humble and caring.”

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